Growing up in Vermont in the summer of 1952, 13-year-old James Kinneson's major concerns are trout fishing, baseball and whether or not he will grow an inch or two taller before school reopens in the fall.
James' village of Kingdom Gool, so remote that he and his father, Charles, frequently drive for miles to the highest ridge in order to pick up the Boston Red Sox game on the car radio, is typical rural Americana.
The small farms and weathered barns, the kind seen on wish-you-were-here picture postcards, appear serene and stable, a reassuring contrast to the havoc unfolding in Washington where Joseph McCarthy is about the business of destroying lives and careers. The senator's mission, among the sorriest in American political history, has cast a pall over the nation, but with the exception of James' father, the crusty editor of the town's newspaper, the events touch the inhabitants of Kingdom County not at all.
Like most small and insular places, the town has its share of peculiar personalities: the dog-cart man--an itinerant deaf-mute artist who appears mysteriously every summer to restore the outdoor paintings destroyed by the harsh New England winter. Under his hand, brilliant colored fish, cows and other figures spring to life on the sides of the weathered barns, the old bridge, a town monument and the wall of the quarry. When his work is finished, the artist--with his six dogs and supply cart--disappears as mysteriously as he had come.
There are peculiar names: Replacement Mari, the young girl left by the Gypsies in gratitude to Charles Kinneson's widowed grandfather; Welcome and Resolved, sons of Replacement Mari, cousins of James and Charles and an embarrassment to the entire town because of their slovenly ways and petty outlaw activities.
And there are peculiar habits, as Jimmy relates: "My father and my older brother, Charlie, couldn't say two words to each other without getting into an argument. In and of itself, I don't suppose that their quarreling was so very unusual . . . what distinguished Kinneson-family arguments from most others is that once they got up a head of steam, Dad and Charlie refused to speak to each other directly. Instead they conducted their running verbal battles through the nearest available third person, who, more frequently than not, turned out to be me.
" 'Your father and brother agree to disagree, that's all,' my mother told me a hundred times. 'Every family has its little peculiarities, Jimmy. Arguing is just the Kinnesons' special way of visiting with each other, I suppose.' "
There are further degrees of dissension. Between families, within families, between friends, among the church members, and within the casual network of old-boy politicians that pass for power in the town
So even the dog-cart man's artistry cannot disguise the moral rot that comes to light when the Rev. Walter Andrews and his teen-aged son, Nathan, arrive in Kingdom County. They have come in response to an inquiry from the congregation that had been without a pastor for two years.
Rev. Andrews is Canadian-born, a former RCAF officer, a handsome athlete, and black.
His presence is a revelation. Young James is amazed that the minister's speech is so well modulated, "Not like Amos 'n' Andy or Rochester at all." And he is surprised at the gradation of skin tone between the man and his son, having assumed all his young life that all black persons were of the same complexion.
Rev. Andrews takes over the church duties, institutes new programs and revives flagging attendance. He also begins to research the history of Pliny Templeton, a slave who had escaped to Vermont in 1860 via the Underground Railway and who founded the town's first academy.
Although Andrews fits easily into his pastoral duties, he remains a stranger in the kingdom, and to some of the inhabitants, his color and confidence are more than an irritant.
The town's false sense of serenity is further displaced when Claire LaRiviere, a girl of 17, arrives in response to an ad placed by Resolved Kinneson. The ad is misleading. Claire assumes she will be working for him as a housekeeper. Resolved--filthy, unkempt and a chronic alcoholic--has other plans for her. Horrified at the situation in which she finds herself, she flees to the parsonage. Resolved, vowing revenge, tracks her down but is challenged by Andrews. This triggers a confrontation with the town's ineffectual policeman, who demonstrates his own peculiar idea of maintaining law and order. What Resolved and the policeman cannot effect by force and intimidation soon is accomplished by rumor and innuendo, and the townspeople are divided by the scandal.
Then Claire disappears. When her horribly mutilated body is found, emotions fueled by latent bigotry boil up like lava through the cracks in a mountain. The minister immediately is charged with the murder, and Charles Kinneson Jr. steps forward to defend him.